Exchange report - Student at KI
The view over Zurich from the ETH main building terass
Home university: Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zürich)
Study programme: Biomedicine
Exchange programme: Erasmus
Semester: Autumn semester 2015/2016
Name: Laura Kurapkaite
Email address:


I had been looking forward to going on exchange during the last semester of biomedicine to do the bachelor thesis since the first year of the programme. During my first years in Sweden after having moved here from Lithuania 8 years ago, I went to international schools and got to meet many different people from all over the world, which was very exciting. Therefore I had missed the international environment and the feeling of coming to a new country and getting to know new people and different cultures. The semester abroad was a great idea since there was always a chance to meet new students from different places in the world. 

I chose Switzerland since I hadn't been there before so I thought it would be interesting to have a chance to live there for a while and have the other European countries close by to travel to on weekends. I love the Alps, both skiing in winter and hiking in summer. I also love chocolate and cheese, which basically summed up my decision. I must admit that the fact that Einstein went to ETH (the university that I did the bachelor thesis work at) was a great bonus too. In all seriousness though, ETH is a well-known university worldwide, having a great reputation and one of the top-rankings and it is very interesting to see how they combine technical knowledge (which it is mostly focused on) together with medical aspects, such as neuroscience, life science and pharmacy. The result of the combination is great, and I am happy to have had a chance to experience it. 

The information given by KI about studying abroad was very concise and clear and it was quite easy to organize everything. The whole process was guided through by the exchange coordinator and it went smoothly. After having applied to the partner university, ETH sent a lot of information on how to proceed with registering and applying to various things related to exchange, scholarship and the alike. There were quite many different things to take care of, however they had sent quite great guidelines and explanations so it went smoothly too. If anything was unclear I could always contact the exchange coordinator at ETH, who would answer right away. 

Since Swizerland is in Europe there were no special vaccinations required prior to coming there, nor were there any specific certificates or health insurance needed. 

Arrival and registration

Before the course start there were a few things to fix once having arrived in Switzerland. Some of them were registering yourself at the ETH exchange student office and getting all the information for the further registration and life in Switzerland in general. The opening hours of the ETH exchange student office are rather short so it is a good idea to have a few days for fixing such things without stress. Registration at the Kreisburo for obtaining the residence permit followed afterwards, where you needed to have a passport, a document photo, a document from ETH stating the length of your stay in Switzerland and some money. The city of Zurich is divided into different districts called Kreis and therefore you have to go to the one which is closest to where you live. Once the residence permit was obtained, you could also get a phone deal and open a bank account. I had the prepaid phone deal so there was no binding to the phone company and you payed for what you used which was pretty easy. I never opened a bank account since the biggest banks wanted you to stay in Switzerland for at least half a year and the initial period I was supposed to stay was 4.5 months. Using my Swedish bank account worked fine as well. 
Since the term in Zurich started later than the Swedish spring term, I attended the introductory event hosted by ETH about a month after I had already started at ETH. As I did the bachelor thesis I could choose what day I wanted to start at the lab and therefore was not dependent on the Swiss term dates. I went to the introductory event since it was mandatory but most of the things I already knew, however most of the people from my student house went there too so it was fun to go there together. 
There was also a mentor programme organized by Erasmus Student Network (ESN), where you could join the group on Facebook and get a mentor in Zurich to show you around and to answer your questions. I found the group a few weeks after I had arrived though so I didn't use the programme since I already knew people by that time and was already working hard at the first lab and therefore didn't have time. 
The best Swiss chocolate which I bought shortly after I arrived there (first things first) - Läderach.


The currency in Switzerland is Swiss francs, where 1CHF is around 8.7SEK at the moment. Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in the world and was rated as the most expensive in Europe, therefore before coming to Switzerland it is good to have saved up some money since almost everything is more expensive than in Stockholm. The minimum amount needed per month to live in Zurich according to ETH is estimated to be 1400 CHF, including accommodation and food costs. However when you are on exchange, you want to travel and experience more things therefore the costs can easily go much more up. 
Public transport has quite normal prices, similar to the ones in Stockholm (even though Zurich is much smaller) and if you want to travel around Switzerland by trains it is a good idea to get a half-tax card which costs 185CHF for the whole year and all the train tickets you buy are then half-price. If you travel more than 2 times you already have saved some money. You can also buy supersaver tickets in advance and therefore save even more money for the travels, which is totally worth it!
It was also possible to join the ESN and buy their card for 5CHF and can get student discounts at different places as well as attend their events for free or with a big discount. The people from my house and I weren't so active in ESN and we didn't have the card but instead organized our own trips.
Eating out almost only happened when the parents came to visit, since the restaurants in Switzerland are expensive... So making food at home was the best alternative. Food at supermarkets was more expensive than in Sweden of course, however sometimes they had reduced prices for different meat and such. For cheaper alternatives you could also plan your meals during the week and go to Aldi or Lidl as well as Denner for bigger grocery shopping. The WOKO where I lived had very limited fridge space (we had a small fridge box where you needed to lay down the small milk package to store it since it didn't fit otherwise) therefore it was hard to store a lot of groceries and plan my meals accordingly. To save time I just went to a supermarket close to my house and tried to plan my meals a few days ahead instead. The cafeteria at the campus where my lab was offered lunch for 5.4 CHF which was really good price for Switzerland and the food was also alright, offering three choices of varying menus everyday. Therefore it was pretty much the same as making your own food where you didn't spend much more money and you save time making food. The only thing left to buy at supermarkets was breakfast food and something small for dinner. 

Most of my money went on travels. Definitely worth it!


Many say that it is very difficult to find accommodation in Zurich, which is partly true. If you are looking for one yourself or if you are a full-time bachelor/master student at ETH it is indeed harder to find accommodation than for the exchange students. 
In Zurich they have student housing network called WOKO, which is somewhat equivalent to SSSB in Stockholm. When you are on exchange at ETH you are entitled to rent a room at WOKO and they have a smooth procedure of how to apply for one. Basically once you are accepted for exchange at ETH you can apply for a student room on the ETH website and they automatically assign you one of the many WOKOs somewhere in town. I did just that and got a room where 168 other exchange students lived and the kitchen and bathrooms were shared. It was the best alternative since in this way you got to meet so many other people and never had to be alone since we had one huge kitchen,  a big lounge where we all hung out and had parties at, as well as an outside place where you could have barbecues and enjoy the sun when the weather got warmer. The river was 5 min walking distance so we hung out there a lot too. The great thing about living in a house full of international students was the fact that many of them were new to Switzerland and wanted to travel as much as I did.
The WOKO that I lived at was Meierwiesenstrasse 62 and it was at Altstetten, which is quite close to town. I was working at the lab at campus Irchel, which was around 30 min by public transport but it was easy to reach the campus since there was a tram stop right outside my house and then I would change to the bus that stopped right outside the campus. Room cost was 545 CHF, which is relatively cheap considering that the average room costs in Zurich are around 700 CHF. 
On the ETH website, there are many other useful links on how to find a house if you wish to live with fewer people or on your own, however I would highly recommend just applying for any of the WOKO. The only problem was that I arrived two weeks before the contract with my WOKO room assigned by ETH was valid so I had to find another place to live in the meantime. I used the ETH link and found WOKO website where other students sublet their rooms for shorter periods of time I got a room at a WOKO also in Altstetten, quite close to where I moved later so it went pretty smoothly. The first hand WOKO contract was also valid throughout the whole summer so if I had finished my project on time (at the end of May) I would have had to sublet the room to someone else. It's really easy to find a sublet though since there are many students coming for the summer internships in Zurich so most of my friends had no trouble finding one. Since my project got prolonged I stayed in Zurich until mid-August so I didn't even have to worry about the housing at all. 
The ponds at campus Irchel. The university building was at a park and you walked by these ponds every morning to get to the lab which was pretty nice!

Studies in general

Prior to coming to ETH I found a research group where I could do the bachelor thesis project. To do this I just checked out the ETH website where all the departments were listed ( and in that way found the ones I was interested in and started emailing researchers from the different departments. Since KI worked close with department of Pharmaceutical sciences at ETH figured to look for a project in that field. I was also interested in neuroscience which eventually narrowed down my search to two labs- one in molecular pharmacology department and one in neural control of movement lab. The story is quite long, however I must say that KI has a high reputation at ETH and in a way it was not to my benefit at the fist lab I ended up at. I chose the one within pharmacology department since they worked with microbiology, whereas the neural control of movement lab worked with more technical things which I had no experience in. So at the very first day I had to start with the lab work without getting much introduction in microbiological methods or in the background of the project and it already felt like the wrong choice from the very beginning because despite having sent them the list of courses I had taken it felt like their expectations were way too high. 
Being a person who never gives up and eventually figures things out and manages whenever things are hard, I figured I'd get through the 4.5 months even though the atmosphere in the lab was terrible (extreme hierarchy, small and unfriendly lab group who never had meetings and being looked down on by my supervisor when I had a question about something) as well as the project was too difficult and felt like it was more master-student level. Eventually being half-way done I realized I still didn't know what the project was really about but I felt like I was starting to get a hang of it a little bit. My supervisor however thought differently and that resulted into them telling me to find a new lab without really giving advise on where to turn next. 
I had a few choices: I could find a new lab at ETH, go back to KI and find a lab there or start a project during the autumn term. 
I decided to go with the lab that I had said no to earlier since it was still the most interesting project and in that way if I started over I could sill finish it by the mid-August thesis defense. The lab that I worked at was the neural control of movement lab ( and from the very first day I came there to visit them during journal club, I loved it there. The environment was quite international and most of the master students were Swiss, giving me a great chance to meet Swiss people too. Although the group was quite big, everyone got along extremely well and we had journal clubs every other week on Fridays, following afterwork as well as we liked to hang out outside of the lab. We even had a staff retreat for everyone in the lab where we went to adventure part and climbed trees and had a barbecue and it was so much fun! My co-supervisor was a PhD student and I was her first student so she was super excited to have me and I really enjoyed having her as my supervisor because not only was she great at introducing me the subject and giving me lots of literature about it but she was also there for me whenever I had any kind of questions. We became good friends too and she even hosted a goodbye get-together for me and some master students at her house with Italian pizza and desserts. We still keep contact now when I'm back. 
The project was about how the brain worked when we observed a movement and we used the TMS method for it. We had human test subjects and most of them were my friends from the WOKO that I lived at so it was really fun. I even got to be test subject too for my friends who were doing their master theses at the lab and their experiments were really interesting!
There was a great contrast in the two labs that I was at even though they both were located in the same hallway... Therefore my advise would be to skype/meet/look up as much as possible about the lab group that you have chosen because I didn't look so much into the first lab. For the second one I was very careful since of course some motivation was lost so I really wanted to make sure that I would be in a good group. It is always difficult to know of course when you're in another country so you should always hope for the best. I must admit, I did learn a lot from my experience and I don't actually regret it since I got to spend the summer in Zurich at the end and met lots of amazing people in the second lab.
Got to be a test subject for my friend's EEG experiment about controlling your alpha-waves. Turned out I was pretty good at it :)

Courses during the exchange period

Courses corresponding to semester 6 at KI
I did not take any courses at ETH since I was only doing the bachelor thesis project. I learned a lot during the project as the area of this research was new to me. We used the TMS method to excite the brain and activate the part of it which controls two muscles in the hand while participants were observing videos of grasping actions. We were therefore interested in what happens in the brain during action observation. I needed to learn the details of how the TMS method worked from the very basics. I got a lot of literature from my supervisor and read up on it and could then apply my knowledge in the project work right away. I even got a certificate stating that I can use the TMS if I decide to work with it in the future (which does sound pretty tempting). I found it very interesting that there was quite a lot of physics involved in how the TMS machine worked as well as many technical and IT aspects in the experiments we did, such as we used Matlab program to make the scripts for the experiments. Not having any background knowledge in Matlab I got to try it out and it was fun to be involved with the different steps which later gave me much more insight on how everything worked together. 
Overall I learned a lot at the neural control of movement lab and I enjoyed every aspect of it!

Language and Culture

Switzerland has 4 official languages- German, French, Italian and Romansh. In Zurich they speak German however the Swiss German is quite different from the German spoken in Germany. Not only it sounds different but even some small words are completely different from high German; the written language however is high German. I had studied some German before in high school and therefore had some background knowledge and hoped to improve my speaking skills but that changed after I heard the Swiss German...
Prior the start of the semester there are two-week intense German courses that you could take which were taught in high German but since I was already working at the first lab I didn't have time for these. Nor did I have time for the regular German courses that were once or twice a week in the evenings throughout the term since there was incredibly much work at the first lab. At the second one I could have done it but by that time it was too late to start. Instead, I had many Swiss master student friends at my lab who happened to speak Swiss German to each other sometimes and at the end of the exchange I actually noticed that I understood at least what they were talking about! 
My speaking skills did not improve much since it is similar there as in Sweden, where in most places you can get around perfectly just by speaking English. 

Switzerland is a very proud country in general with rich traditions, history and a sense of patriotism. There was not much cultural differences in the way the people were per se, namely it takes a little while to get to know Swiss people and become friends with them but once you do, you become really good friends then and you can really trust them. I mostly hung out with the international people form my house but also became really good friends with the Swiss people from the lab later on. 
They do however have more traditional views on certain things and can be considered as more conservative in some ways. They, for example have mandatory military service or alternatively social work for only men and they need to come back there every year once they're done to serve again until they are 30. Dads don't have mandatory paternity leave as they do in Sweden, just to name a few things. Their view on foreigners differs a little from the Swedish view as well. One thing I found very interesting was their direct democracy, namely for every law they want to pass, every citizen over 18 years needs to vote instead of government deciding what will be passed or not. Other than that it is like a regular western country, therefore coming from Sweden you don't get any cultural shock. 
Cute Swiss village in the Alps

Leisure time and social activities

ETH had some introductory events for the students as well as student parties almost every week that you got invitations to via email. They also had a lot of interesting entrepreneurial events that everyone could attend. 
One of the things I found best about ETH was their free ASVZ gyms. Each campus of ETH as well as the University of Zurich had gyms where they also offered group trainings and everything was for free. They even organized different activities that you could attend cheaper such as for example ski trip for one day or for a week. I actually went on the ski trip for a day and met some really nice people there that I'm still friends with. 
My favorite group training at the ASVZ used to be crossfit which was quite professional and it was great stress relief and just great way to spend an hour of the day. It was also a nice place to meet people since everyone basically knew each other there. You could also choose a lot of other activities such as superkondi (high intensity running, jumping and strength exercises) which was really fun, as well as yoga, martial arts, dancing, gymnastics, running, spinning and so on... They really had a lot to choose from! In the summer they even had water sports such as stand up paddling (which I've tried and it was super fun!), kayaking and so on. 
On my free time, as it's probably easy to see already I did a lot of sports and hung out mostly with the friends from my WOKO and also from the lab. Since our WOKO was so big we actually had huge parties at the house which really resembled a club and the neighbors didn't live it so much but we had a lot of fun. We didn't really go out so much since we always ended up staying at home cause it was nicer. When we did go out we usually went to a bar and club street in the city called Langstrasse. It is a very interesting street which has all kinds of bars and clubs you can think of where one bar can be really fancy and another one right next to it can be really bad. So it was a bit exciting and a bit of a lottery of where you'd end up at... The ones we went though were really nice and cosy. 
The city in general is sort of divided into two sides as there is a river that flows in between each side and the side with Bahnhofstrasse is in general more expensive than the other side called Niederdorf. This is true for most of the stores, restaurants and bars so if you want to go out in the city centre it's better to go out on the Niederdorf side. 
There are a lot of events in Zurich such as street food festivals, open air festivals in summer, carnivals year-round and so on. It is very interesting to see how the city can change completely during such events, going from really neat-Swiss city to a loud and eventful place with not so much organization. The festivals and carnivals are usually really fun so I would recommend going to them. 
There is also a mountain in Zurich called Uetliberg that you can hike up to or take a train up and enjoy the beautiful view over the whole city. It is really fun, I've hiked up there three times with different people that came to visit since it's definitely one of the must-do things in Zurich. 
If you like bigger challenges I'd also recommend biking around the lake Zurich or at least a part of it. You can rent a bike at the central station for a day and just bike. I biked around the lake with some friends and it was 105 km of great adventure where you saw so much of the Swiss small towns, the different nature (as it becomes more mountains on the other side of the lake) and even got some unexpected mountain biking somewhere along the way. It was definitely one of the most fun things I did there! 
We rented a 7-seat minivan and drove around Switzerland and camped out in the middle of nowhere with some friends. This was our morning view.


Overall this exchange has been a great adventure! There were so many things that happened that changed my view on different situations and gave me so many lessons in life as well as I learned a lot about myself. I must say I've learned a lot of positive thinking while being at the first lab and now I can be certain that even though everything seems to be terrible at the moment, it usually leads to much better things at the end. I have met so many great people and made friends for life all over the world so now it will be even more exciting to travel and visit all of them!
Academically, I have definitely learned a lot. Having been in two different labs I got a great insight on what I liked and didn't like about the different aspects of research. I now know how important it is to have great colleagues that you can talk to and count on. No matter where I work in the future, it is definitely one of the most important things. I am happy to have had a great opportunity to do something meaningful and real and it's a great feeling to know that my bachelor thesis project contributes to society (and to my supervisor's PhD work). It was really fun to be involved in something I found interesting and give 100% to this project. 
I am very happy about getting this opportunity to go on exchange. This semester was great and I improved a lot as a person and on the academic level. I will definitely go for an exchange term again in my future studies once I get a chance. 
Photo of Zurich from a church tower. (there are churches everywhere and their bells ring every 15 min so get ready for it... especially if you live near one.)